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After Nepal, is South Asia prepared for the Big One?

On 16 May, a man and two women look on as two girls run through a street lined with the rubble of destroyed houses in Bhimeshwar Municipality, Dolakha District, the epicentre of the 12 May earthquake
(UNICEF / Kiran Panday)

When a massive earthquake struck Nepal in April, it flattened villages and killed more than 9,000 people. It should also have sent countries across the region scrambling to improve preparedness systems; yet experts say too little is being done to get ready for the next big quake.

While India struggles with crumbling infrastructure and poorly enforced building codes, Bhutan has failed to dedicate funds to disaster risk reduction. Nepal itself, surprisingly, has yet to implement programmes promoting preparedness amongst its citizens, and reconstruction efforts may not meet the standards required to withstand another large earthquake.

A recent study published in the journals Nature Geoscience and Science underscores the need for countries to invest heavily in disaster preparedness, as it suggests the region is likely to be hit by an even larger quake.

The study found that the 7.8-magnitude Gorkha earthquake that hit Nepal released stress westward along the Main Himalayan Thrust fault line, a densely populated stretch of 500 miles from Pokhra in Nepal to Dehradun in India. Such a transfer of seismic energy increases the chances of a great earthquake, the magnitude of which has not occurred in 500 years.

The study found that a future quake of a magnitude higher than 8.0 could affect western Nepal, India’s Gangetic Plain and Bhutan.

Lead author Jean-Phillipe Avouac stressed the need to improve earthquake preparedness for people living in the region by updating building codes and investing in stations that monitor seismic shifts to help predict future quakes.

“We know that this area is accumulating elastic strain, which is available to drive earthquakes in the future,” Avouac told IRIN. “This was certainly a tragedy as 10,000 people were killed, but the Gorkha earthquake is not among the really large earthquakes the Himalaya (fault line) can produce.”

Reducing risk

Investment in risk reduction is, at least in part, already under way in India. 

Dr. Vineet Gahlaut, who heads the National Centre for Seismology, has assisted in setting up 25 GPS stations in Uttarakhand to monitor changes in ground stress. The state is also home to India’s first early warning system, which can predict an oncoming earthquake up to 40 seconds before it occurs.

“I can very proudly say that Uttarakhand is the best region in the Himalayan arc as far as GPS is concerned,” said Gahlaut.

There is also a push to make the public more aware of the risk, according to Kamal Kishore, a member of India’s National Disaster Management Association (NDMA) who said authorities in several states had launched public awareness campaigns and school drills.

However, India continues to lag behind in building safety, according to Kishore. Retrofitting of existing buildings to make them earthquake-resistant is negligible and building codes are poorly enforced.

“We really need to take [retrofitting] to a significant scale,” he said. “There are guidelines from the NDMA for retrofitting, but we really need to implement them.”

India’s building codes were updated in 2001 after a 7.7-magnitude earthquake in the western state of Gujarat, but Kishore said there are not enough trained engineers to enforce them. Instead, builders usually fail to follow the new regulations, opting instead to cut corners and save money.

“We need to create a social demand for stronger buildings to withstand earthquakes,” he said.

Gaps in Nepal and Bhutan

The situation is similar in Nepal, where building codes are in urgent need of updating, according to Bishal Nath Upreti, chairperson of Disaster Preparedness Network, an umbrella group of NGOs that includes the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the government’s disaster management agency.

The quake that struck Nepal in April destroyed more than 600,000 houses made of stone and mud. This was despite widespread knowledge that the country was at a high risk of being struck by a large quake and should have updated its building codes accordingly, said Upreti.

“Structural engineering has to be done in the mountains, otherwise hundreds of thousands of people will die,” he told IRIN.

Even after the destruction in April and further damage from a second large and deadly earthquake in May, the new building codes being presented in Nepal are not up to the challenge.

“There are different designs given by the government (for reconstruction), but I’m not very sure if these designs are good enough for an earthquake of 8.5-magnitude,” said Upreti.

Though search-and-rescue operations were swift, emergency preparedness amongst the people was poor and it has not improved, he said. “We really failed to do what we should have been doing.”

In Bhutan, funding restrictions are the main hurdle to disaster preparedness.

The country only set up its Department of Disaster Management in 2008 and passed the Disaster Management Act in 2013. Efforts to put into practice the recommendations of the act are under way, but a lack of coordination among different government sectors has stunted effective implementation, according to a report presented to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) in February.

The budget for Bhutan’s Department of Disaster Management was almost doubled last year to $590,000. However, no money has been allocated to disaster risk reduction, which is the practice of targeting vulnerabilities in infrastructure and preparedness to mitigate the repercussions of natural disasters.

Bhutan’s Department of Geology and Mines is setting up seismic stations to detect and measure the Earth’s grounds motions, according to Japchu, an associate programme officer at the Department of Disaster Management.

Despite the budget constraints, there have been some successes in emergency preparedness, according to Japchu, who uses only one name.

“We have instituted a lot of school safety programmes for kids,” he said, explaining that schools in Bhutan practise earthquake and post-disaster preparation drills every month.


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